|Former cathedral on former Kneiphof island in former Königsberg|
Everywhere you go in Central Europe, you’re travelling to a place that no longer exists. And no place more so than Königsberg.
The centre of the city, now Kaliningrad in the Russian exclave wedged between Lithuania and Poland, simply isn’t there. Where once were bustling streets and shops and trams and carts and markets... it’s now a tree-lined park, flanked by a couple of highways. The old city is gone.
Many European city centres were devastated by massive Allied bombing and fierce ground combat in WW2, but unlike almost everywhere else, in Königsberg, no one rebuilt what people remembered – mostly because the people who might have remembered were deported en masse after the war: men, women and children. Centuries of the old city’s Prussian history came to an end. There was no one left who could have any sense of nostalgia for what was lost, and so no one was yearning to recreate what once was.
|Ruins of Königsberg Castle in what used to be the city centre.|
In any case, the new rulers took the ruined city centre island of Kneiphof and dismembered it brick by remaining brick, sending the building materials to Leningrad to help reconstruct that destroyed city. In the 1960s, they blew up the ruins of the castle in what used to be Königsberg’s old town just across the river. The second generation of Soviet citizens probably didn’t miss it any more than their parents would have missed the city’s original inhabitants.
|Forget the empty city space. We're in actual space.|
(Cosmonaut Monument. Kaliningrad.)
But parts of the old city are still there as well, if you’re willing to look for them. I don’t mean the lonely, rebuilt cathedral, now concert hall, on the formerly central island of Kneiphof, that sad reminder of the city’s exceptional historical discontinuity.
|Moskva Hotel, Kaliningrad. (1936)|
|Villa, Kaliningrad (former Amalienau district, Königsberg).|
Elsewhere in and around Kaliningrad are the 19th century military fortifications: there may be more remaining intact here than in any other city in Europe. Red brick behemoths are seemingly everywhere on the former outskirts, some renovated and in great shape, others slowly being overgrown by the greenery of the decades. It’s a sad irony that many of the massive defences of Königsberg remain, while the city centre they were created to protect was destroyed.
|Königstor (1850), Königsberg, now Kaliningrad|
Of course, the same Kant who wrote in “Perpetual Peace” (1795) that, “The rights of men must be held sacred, however great the cost of sacrifice may be to those in power,” also helped promote the antisemitic thread of German history that would lead to his nation’s self-immolation – and his own city’s physical disappearance.
|Kneiphof, Königsberg: The old city is simply gone...|
|Elbląg, Poland: What not to do.|
That experience next door shows that, ultimately, the ghosts of Königsberg can never be satisfied. And three quarters of a century on, should anyone be trying to satisfy them anyway? The living city has other priorities.
|Please, just make it go away: "House of Soviets" |
However, that wouldn’t solve the core problem, as its elimination would immediately beg the question: what to put in its place? More nothing? 50 more square meters of centrally located emptiness to remind everyone that something’s missing?
I have no answer. I suspect no one does.
Central Kaliningrad is in many ways the last of Europe’s cityscapes to address the legacy of the Second World War. It probably always will be. Not dealing with it is how Kaliningrad deals with it.
And after two or three generations of Soviet citizens living here and another one or two generations of Russian citizens, why should anyone even be thinking about doing things any differently? The occasional voices calling for rebuilding are as lonely as the Kneiphof island itself.
|Before and after, Kneiphof: Königsberg/Kaliningrad.|
And maybe this is the only city centre that makes any sense now: the one that reminds you of its existence by no longer being there.
Postscript 1: See more photos from Königsberg/Kaliningrad
Postscript 2: I spend a fair amount of time criticising the Russian government for many important reasons, but one small thing they deserve credit for is a new e-visa system that lets citizens of many countries visit Kaliningrad (and a couple other places in Russia) very easily. Cost-free and taking about ten minutes to fill in the online application, the new e-visa only became available a few months ago, but it makes Kaliningrad more open to the outside than it has been for three quarters of a century.